The question that begins the Alexander Technique

It’s that story again

In order to talk about the journey that we, as Alexander students, must take, I have to talk about the journey Alexander took. His first steps must be our first steps. 

The journey begins with a question. It’s actually quite a simple question. The problem is, if you don’t know how Alexander got there — if you don’t have the context — the question won’t make complete sense, or at least you might miss the full impact or import of the question. You need the story.

Alexander himself told this tale in the first chapter of his third book, The Use of The Self, published in 1932. It’s probably the best known of Alexander’s writings, and if you have had even a fleeting experience of Alexander Technique you have probably heard a version of this story.

However, despite the frequency with which this story (parts of it, anyway) has been repeated, I have noticed that people often don’t give it the attention that I think it’s due. Having heard or read it once or twice, students seem to think they’ve done their part and don’t give it much more thought.

And that is such a shame, because this story has the power to transform the life of anyone who will take the time to read it. 

I mean properly read it. 

Read it as it was written.

Many times.

I will leave you to explore that chapter at your leisure (see links below for sources). For our purposes here, we just need the very beginning of the story. We just need to understand the events that led Mr Alexander to ask his remarkable question.

In the beginning

F. Matthias Alexander was an actor.

In fact, it would be more accurate to say that he was an elocutionist – a professional reciter. In the last decades of the 19thcentury, before bingo halls or cinema, one could make a decent living reciting Shakespeare, and by all accounts Alexander was pretty darn good.

A few years into his career, though, he began to have trouble with his throat and vocal organs. As time went by, the problem got gradually worse until he started to lose his voice altogether. 

At first, Alexander did just what you or I would have done. He went to the doctor. 

Knowing something of Alexander’s character I am reasonably certain he followed the doctor’s advice to the letter. But it didn’t help.

So, Alexander found the best voice coaches and acting coaches he could find, thinking there might be something wrong with his technique. 

Knowing something of Alexander’s character I am reasonably certain he followed their advice to the letter. But it didn’t help.

By this time Alexander was worried. Despite all the medical help and educational help, the problem just kept getting worse, until he believed that he would have to give up his career.

One day he was offered what he called “a particularly attractive and important engagement”, which he was frankly afraid to accept. Can you imagine? You’ve spent years working at a career you love, honing your skills and building up a reputation. Then when your big break comes along you feel like you have to turn it down because you’re afraid your own body could let you down at any moment. That’s tough.

He saw his doctor again. The doctor examined him again and said that if he rested his voice and didn’t recite for two weeks, while following a prescribed treatment, then his voice would be fine. (We don’t know what the treatment was, but we do know that rest was a significant part of it, and that’s the part that’s going to be important)

The ‘solution’ that didn’t work

Alexander accepted this advice, and I’m willing to bet he said almost nothing during the following weeks. His condition improved and he was soon feeling optimistic enough to take the gig. By the time of his recital his voice seemed to be back to normal. But before he was half-way through his program his voice began to fail, and by the end of the evening he could barely speak.

Alexander saw his doctor the next day and asked what he thought they should do about it. The doctor didn’t have anything much to offer except to continue the treatment, but Alexander wasn’t having any of this. He pointed out that he had followed the doctor’s instructions and had not used his voice during the treatment, but that as soon as he had gone back on stage the problem had returned.

The question that did

It was at this moment that Mr Alexander asked an extraordinary question. An extraordinarily powerful question. It is the question that began Alexander’s journey and therefore began the Alexander Technique. And it is a question that all of us must ask ourselves if we want to do what Alexander did. He said:

“Is it not fair, then, to conclude that it was something I was doing that evening in using my voice that was the cause of the trouble?”

Wow!

Do you see what he did?

By asking this question in this way Alexander has done something amazing. He has turned the kaleidoscope; he has changed the way we see the problem and, therefore, the way we look for solutions.

When the trouble started, the question he asked, very reasonably, was: “what is wrong with my throat?” Is the voice damaged and can we fix it?

When that didn’t help, the second question was: “am I doing it wrong?” Is my technique bad and can I learn to correct it?

Having ruled out, at least to some extent, both of these he asked: “what if I am making the problem?” What if the throat and vocal organs are fine (there is nothing to fix), and I am reciting well with good technique (there is nothing to correct), but I am also doing something else, which is causing this problem. 

A whole new problem

As I sit here writing this section, I have the cartoon “He-Man and the masters of the universe” on my mind. Obviously. This is very annoying because I really hated those cartoons. Anyhow, the reason it’s on my mind is that, one day, He-Man waves his magic sword in the air and says: “I HAVE THE POWER”. And, oddly enough, it turns out that he actually does.

Alexander did something very similar, but without waving a sword. The phrase “something I was doing” represents a changed point of view, and the essential first step in Alexander’s journey — self-responsibility.

Up to this point he has been looking for external causes and external help, whether medical or educational. But as soon as he starts to consider the possibility that: “I did this. I am the one in control”, that changes things. To paraphrase a well-known saying: with self-responsibility comes great power.

The simplest of solutions

These days, in my own teaching, I typically use a slightly more generalised version of Alexander’s question: “What if there is something I am doing that is causing my problem?” 

I think this iteration makes it a little easier to see, not just who has the power, but also the vital distinction between “doing something wrong” and “doing something that is causing trouble”. I say “vital” because these two kinds of problem lead to two very different kinds of solution.

If you are doing something wrong, then you need instruction on how to do it right, and probably some practice. For example, you might need a tennis coach to correct your grip, help you with your timing and show you a better line for that perfect forehand.

If you are also doing something else that is limiting your movement options generally, the best coaching in the world isn’t likely to change that. Good coaching and good practice will certainly help your game, but you can have the best grip, the best timing and the best line, and still be doing something else that is limiting your movement.

This ‘something else’ is the category of problem that Alexander postulated, that he spent years investigating, that he was able to demonstrate and then solve. The solution is simple, straight forward, and is the last thing that occurs to most people. 

If there is indeed something I am doing to create my own limitations, in tennis or any other activity, then there is only one solution that makes any sense.

Stop.

If I am in fact creating this problem, then all I have to do is stop creating it. If I stop making the problem, the problem won’t exist and there won’t be anything left to fix. Simples.

One small step.

The first step on this journey, then, for us as it was for Alexander, is self-responsibility. Not in the sense of ‘fault’ or ‘blame’, but in the sense that “YOU HAVE THE POWER”. If there is something that you are doing, which is creating some kind of interference or limitation on the way you move, then hooray! That means you already have the solution.  

Stop doing whatever that is. 

Is there more to it? Sure there is. In the course of his experiments Alexander discovered many fascinating and occasionally ground-breaking ideas about the way human beings operate. He developed a set of mental disciplines and skills that will enable anyone in any field to become more effective at what they do. You could easily spend a lifetime at this work and never run short of new insights and new experiences.

This first step, though, is the key. If you can learn how to recognise the limitations that you have created for yourself, and if you can stop creating those limitations, you will open up a whole new world of possibilities.

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By Simon Gore

Simon teaches Alexander Technique in Bristol, England, and is a course coordinator for the ITM teacher training programme.

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